Strange things are happening to Europe's populations. Due to their low birth rates, Germany, Russia and several other European countries face a sustained, outright fall in their numbers – something that has never happened before in any advanced economy. Meanwhile many other countries face ageing stagnation. Yet the British population, thanks to high immigration, is projected to continue growing strongly.
Even so, we are still set to emerge from the credit crunch only to find ourselves at the start of a long demographic crunch. Within a decade, as the baby boomers start to retire, the impact of an ageing population on health and social services will really start to make itself felt. Our ambivalence about immigration also muddies the outlook. Labour has used high net migration to help balance the demographic books. But what if the voters call a halt?
Both the main parties now say they will curb immigration, but there has been hardly any consideration of the implications. To find more workers from among our own ranks we could raise the pension age more quickly, and we could try to cut the number of working-age people on benefits – but neither would be easy or popular.
It is also important to realise that increased longevity is only half the reason that our average age is rising. Just as significant is that there are fewer young people to reduce the average. If Europe is to have any hope of addressing its demographic problems it is going to have to get younger. No government should tell people what size of family they should aim for. But there is ample survey evidence that in nearly all European countries women want more children than they are having.
In Britain, a liberal labour market and a general acceptance of single parenthood have helped to underpin our birth rate. But it is still below replacement level, and we could certainly do better on issues like housing, the tax burden on young families, and the cost and availability of childcare.
Demography is an area in which more joined–up policy making could really make a difference – yet it still gets far less attention than climate change.
Richard Ehrman's The Power of Numbers: Why Europe Needs to Get Younger is published this week by Policy Exchange and the University of Buckingham Press